From the Vault: Plan de Rhode Island

Wed, 05/31/2017 - 11:40am -- mfarias

Our collection of historic maps provides us with very different perspectives of early Newport, with each map influenced by the point of view of its creator. The map featured here, for example, is a military plan, drawn in August 1778 by Michel Capitaine du Chesnoy (1746-1804) who was serving in the Continental Army and working for General Lafayette. His views of Newport, its island, and the waters surrounding it, are based primarily on military positioning, as represented in his rendering.


Plan de Rhode Island, 1778
From the Collection of the Redwood Library
Gift of Mrs. James Laurens Van Alen


Michel Capitaine du Chesnoy was a geographical engineer who had previously served in the French army as a lieutenant attached to the Regiment d’Aquitaine. Capitaine came to America in 1777 as one of Lafayette’s entourage of French officers, but he became ill soon after landing in South Carolina and he spent a year recovering in North Carolina. In April 1778 he came north and rejoined the fight. He was appointed the rank of Captain of Engineers in the Continental Army and then rejoined Lafayette as an aide-de-camp. For the Continental Army he mapped the Susquehanna River and was then principally occupied with mapping the engagements in which Lafayette participated. Following the mapping of the Plan de Rhode Island, Capitaine was brevetted a major on November 5, 1778. The following January, he went with Lafayette to France where, in June 1779, he was brevetted a captain in the King’s Dragoons. He returned to America in the spring of 1780 with Lafayette and continued to serve him as an aide-de-camp until December 1781, when they again left for France after the war was over. Capitaine never returned to America, but he retained his Continental rank until November 1783 and subsequently served as an assistant on the French Army general staff until 1790.


Valley Forge - Washington and Lafayette
From the Collection of the Redwood Library
Gift of Ruth Meyers in memory of Captain J. C. Meyers


Capitaine’s plan details the Battle of Rhode Island, from the arrival of Continental troops led by General John Sullivan on August 9, 1778 to the withdrawal of the Continental Army by the end of the month. It was the first attempt at coordination between French and American forces following France’s arrival as an American ally. In the map, Newport is depicted at about the center of the sheet. To the left is Narragansett Bay, with the British naval force at top left and the French vessels commanded by the Comte d’Estaing in the middle passage at top center. The siege lines, trenches, and redoubts of the two contending armies are marked in red for the British and in yellow for the American. To the left of the map is a coded key providing the identity for the various elements represented. 


While the battle ended without a clear victor, Continental troops did withdraw from the island, known then as Rhode Island, leaving it in British hands. (The colony was called Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, referring to the island on which Newport sat as Rhode Island and the mainland as Providence Plantations. Today the island is known as Aquidneck Island.) The British abandoned Newport a year later, allowing for the arrival of French forces led by Rochambeau to take residence in 1780.

Of special note to us at the Redwood is the farm of Abraham Redwood, our founder, marked at the top-right of “Rhode Island” in the map.